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Talks may resume in Bahrain

Government, opposition members lay groundwork

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Leaders of Bahrain's top Shiite opposition bloc and a senior minister from the Sunni-dominated government met secretly this month to discuss resuming formal talks between the sides, The Washington Times has learned.

The news came as Shiite protesters stormed the streets of the capital, Manama, on Tuesday to commemorate the one-year anniversary of their abortive uprising, which ended in March when a Saudi-led force entered the tiny island kingdom.

Bahrain has been in a political stalemate since last February, when lawmakers from the Wefaq National Islamic Society - which controlled 18 of 40 seats in the lower house of parliament - resigned to protest the government's deadly crackdown.

The Shiite bloc had refused unconditional talks, demanding the government's dissolution and other confidence-building measures as down payment on the democratic reforms they seek.

In phone interviews Tuesday, three senior Wefaq officials signaled a shift in the bloc's position and confirmed that a secret meeting had taken place between royal court minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed and two members of the bloc's executive board.

The Times was unable to confirm the date of the meeting but was told it had taken place within the past two weeks.

Abduljalil Khalil, who headed Wefaq's parliamentary faction, said the meeting's purpose was to "break the ice" after months without talks.

Mr. Khalil and other Wefaq leaders said they are ready to resume a formal dialogue but are waiting for an official government invitation spelling out an agenda.

"If we notice that there is serious will by the government to have a dialogue and that the main things we demanded will be put on the agenda ... we will welcome such a serious dialogue," said Jawad Fairoz, one of two former Wefaq lawmakers who was jailed during last year's unrest.

Jasim Husain, another former Wefaq lawmaker, echoed the sentiments.

"Wefaq strongly believes that dialogue is the only way forward," he said, adding that he believes government officials had "changed their strategy" after seeing that the crackdown had not silenced the country's largely Shiite protest movement.

Bahraini officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The government says it has instituted a series of reforms in response to the November report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, an international panel of investigators that found systematic torture and instances of excessive force against demonstrators during last year's unrest.

In a phone interview late Monday, BICI Chairman Cherif Bassiouni said authorities had implemented some of his report's recommendations, including the restoration of students and public-sector workers who had been expelled or dismissed for political reasons.

But he lamented the slow pace of criminal investigations into cases of torture and excessive force against protesters, which he attributed to an understaffed attorney general's office.

"You're dealing with a governmental system - and particularly a system of justice - which was not equipped and ready to receive the types of cases that the events produced," Mr. Bassiouni said. He noted that only seven indictments of "low-level enlisted men" had been issued since his report's November release.

Mr. Bassiouni returned to Bahrain last week to assess the steps authorities have taken in response to his report.

"[The king] said to me, 'You know, the reason I've asked you to come back is precisely because I want an honest assessment of what's being done,' " he said.

His assessment: "I would say at the decision-making level it's an A, and the execution level it's probably a C+."

Mr. Bassiouni will return to Bahrain next month before issuing a follow-up report assessing the authorities' performance in implementing his recommendations.

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